The Wisdom of a Man Who Knows 115 Languages

Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire is an extraordinary human being. Aside from learning one hundred and fifteen languages, Dr. Freire has made significant contributions to the field of linguistics (discovering a phonological relationship between Georgian and Aymara being just one of them). His poetry anthology, which includes poems from sixty different languages translated into his native Portuguese, has got people over at the Guinness World Book of Records talking about including him in an upcoming addition. He would be listed for being the one person who has translated poems from more languages into his native language than any other person. This morning he gave me the opportunity to conduct and record a telephone interview with him from his home in Southern Brazil.

What do you say to a man who knows more languages than you can think of? I suppose the overly simple answer is, Anything you want. I am not a professional and had some unfortunate technical difficulties, nonetheless, I truly believe that anyone who is interested in learning foreign languages can benefit from listening to this interview.

First Part

Second Part

Third Part

Fourth Part

I’ve included a list of his languages here for all of you curious people.

Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Aramaic, Armenian, Assyrian, Aymara, Azeri, Basque, Bengali, Belorussian, Burmese, Bislama, Breton, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese (Mandarin), Chinese (Cantonese), Corsican, Czech, Haitian Creole, Danish, Dutch, English, Egyptian, Esperanto, Estonian, Faroese, Filipino, Finish, Franco-Provençal, French, Frisian, Friulian, Gallic (Irish), Gaellic (Scottish), Galician, Georgian, German (Hochdeutsch), German (Schweizerdeutsch), Greek (Classic), Greek (Modern), Guarani, Guinea Bissau Creole, Hausa, Hebrew, Hindi, Hittite, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Javanese, Kaingang, Kazakh, Khmer (Cambodian), Korean, Kurdish, Ladino (Dalmatian), Ladino (Jewish Spanish), Latin, Latvian, Lithuanian, Luxemburgish, Macedonian, Mayan, Malaysian, Malagasy, Maltese, Mapuche (Mapudungun), Mongolian, Nahuatl, Nepali, Occitan, Papiamento, Papua New Guinean English Creole, Pashto, Persian (Farsi), Polish, Quechua, Romansh, Romani (Gypsy), Romanian, Russian, Ruthenian, Samoan, Sanskrit, Sardinian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Somali, Sorbian (Upper), Sorbian (Lower), Swahili, Swedish, Tamil, Tartar, Thai, Tibetan, Tupi, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese, Welsh, Wolof, Volapük, Xavante, Yidish, Yoruba, Zulu.

If you are like me these fifteen minutes with Dr. Freire will not be enough. For more information about some of these subjects I suggest you read another excellent interview conducted with him in 2003. Your can read this interview in English here and here. Portuguese speakers can read the original. He was interviewed on television in Brazil some years ago, a video of which can be seen below.

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Guest Writing for Voices en Español

A couple of months ago I was approached by Eleena, from the blog Voices en Español, who asked me if I would be interested being a guest writer from time to time on her blog. I was flattered and intrigued. I try to keep the focus of this blog to language learning, languages and polyglots. Three topics that often converge. I also publish exclusively in English to reach a wider audience. Writing for Voices en Español would give me the opportunity to write in both English and Spanish and take a more sociopolitical approach to certain linguistic topics.

My first post as a guest writer for Voices en Español is in English here and in Spanish here. It deals with the immigration controversy in the USA and how monolingual America is misunderstanding the problem and misdirecting its anger. Even if you are not American, I think that you can appreciate the issue since there is a similar situation in France, all of Scandinavia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Italy, Germany, Kuwait, Thailand, Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, etc. I invite you to read the post and tell me what you think on Eleena’s blog.

How Many Languages Is It Possible to Learn?

After watching the Olympics and the amazing feats of people like Michael Phelps it makes me reconsider what is possible for people to achieve. How fast can human beings swim; how fast can we run; how much weight can we lift? Similarly, it wouldn’t be strange for any linguist to wonder how many languages a human being could learn in the course of a lifetime.

It’s a Bigger Number than You Think

John Bowring was a British literary translator, economist, politician and diplomat whose service included being the fourth governor of Hong Kong. He claimed that he knew 200 languages and that he could speak 100 of them. Cardinal Joseph Caspar Mezzofanti knew more than 70 languages and could speak 38 without ever having left his homeland: Italy. In our day, the Brazilian linguist Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire claims to know over 100 languages and the Lebanese language instructor Ziad Fazah claims 59. This article has information regarding great hyperpolyglots of the past and this article has information about the great polyglots that are still with us. You may find these numbers hard to believe but each one of these hyperpolyglots has publications or video recordings that suggest that their claims are true.

What Is Speaking a Language?

I used to naively think that this meant being able to say anything in the foreign language and in your own native language. That would mean that if you couldn’t explain how to change a carburetor, the difference between socialism and communism or the steps to buying a house in your target language, without making any obvious grammatical or pronunciation mistakes, then you couldn’t really say that you spoke it. That seems to be a bit demanding since there are many monolinguals that have a hard time doing that well in their own native language.

Even so, I get very annoyed with people who learn a dozen phrases in five languages and try to pass themselves off as cultured polyglots. I don’t think that we should claim to speak a language unless we can at least deal with native speakers well enough to say: I’m sorry. What is a wiggetybunket? I’ve never heard that word before. and then be able to understand the native speaker’s simple explanation. We should also be able to pronounce words well enough for native speakers to be able to understand almost every word we say. Lastly, we should have a good enough understanding of the grammar/structure of the language to form original sentences that are at least mostly correct. If you have a higher level of proficiency then so much the better. Qualifying the number of languages you speak is always a good idea. Statements like, I speak two fluently and am conversational in four others or, I know four and have studied eight are good examples of how to honestly portray your language abilities.

Studying, Forgetting and Remembering

Bowring and Mezzofanti died over 200 years ago but I have had the opportunity to personally deal with Freire and Fazah, as well as with a few other truly great linguists, and I imagine that the former pair were something like the latter. First of all, both Freire and Fazah have studied many languages that they have had no occasion to use in decades. They both admit that speaking them with no prior notice would be very difficult. Freire describes these languages as being deactivated. The curious thing is that they both claim that they can reactivate these languages after a few days of study. This means that if you were to drop them in Istanbul tomorrow and ask them to give a speech to an audience of locals they would probably struggle greatly with the task. If you were to give them a week’s notice they would probably receive praise for how well they spoke Turkish.

How Many Languages Is It Possible to Have a High Level of Fluency In?

That is what many people would really like to know. How many languages can you speak with near native fluency in and have an enormous vocabulary in? To date my experience has taught me that this number has everything to do with your lifestyle. If you have a life that not only gives you the opportunity but also necessitates that or greatly benefits from knowing thirteen languages well then you will probably speak thirteen languages well. If you have a very monolingual lifestyle then even maintaining one other language will most likely be quite difficult.

Limitless Possibilities

What if you studied a new language until you were proficient in it and then switched to another for ten years? Let’s say you’re not Mezzofanti and only became proficient in four languages during that time. Then life happens and you don’t touch the languages for another ten years. Your languages will have become quite deactivated but as soon as you choose to pick up an old book in one of them or spend more than a day or two in a country that speaks that language you will find that it all starts to come back to you. Will your time have been wasted all of those years ago? Only if being able to get around in a foreign country without the help of a third party is not enjoyable for you; only if reading good literature in its original form has no value; only if if learning foreign languages is not enjoyable for you.

How many languages can humans learn? They learn as many as they have time to study and practice. Scientists have yet to find any biological reason why everyone cannot learn twenty languages or even one hundred. Linguists like Bowring, Mezzofanti, Freire and Fazah suggest that our abilities are much greater than we think. As it is with so many things in life, we often become our greatest limitation or our greatest asset. Our attitudes, lifestyles, habits, practices, interests, hobbies, etc. are what usually what determine what we can achieve much more than our physical or mental capacity.